ICONIC CORPSE The Head of Jeremy Bentham

- As the father of modern utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham believed that his usefulness didn't have to end with his death. So in his last will and testament, Bentham instructed that his body should be dissected, and his preserved corpse, or auto-icon as he called it, clothed, displayed, and occasionally taken out to socialize when his colleagues would assemble. It might have been ego, it might have been one last practical joke, but more than anything, it seems that Jeremy Bentham really believed his corpse should be a source of joy and learning. Just this year, Bentham's head has come out of storage to bring happiness to the masses and have science test his 269 year old DNA. Could it be? Was Jeremy Bentham a sort of Proto-Deathling? (dinging) Could it be? It's because of this, okay, and the marvelously botched job done on Bentham's mummified head, that we celebrate Jeremy Bentham, iconic corpse. (dramatic sting) Since 1850, University College London has been home to what's left of Jeremy Bentham's corpse. As per his wishes, Bentham's auto-icon is dressed in a black suit, seated in the chair with his cane, inside a wooden case. And while Bentham presents an odd but relatively innocuous figure in the halls of UCL, his curb appeal is largely because he's not quite all there! You see it's his head. That's not his real head. It's a wax head. I mean, it has some of his real hair, but that's it. So what happened to Bentham's real head? In June of 1832, 84 year old Jeremy Bentham died. As requested, his body was given to his friend Dr. Southwood Smith, who carried out Bentham's dissection. Bentham's dissection was rather controversial, as few people, especially people of Bentham's wealth and status would consider submitting their body to science. Before his death, Bentham had actually helped devise the Anatomy Act of 1832, an act of parliament in the UK that allowed bodies to be donated by the next of kin, as well as unclaimed bodies, to be dissected. Additionally, individuals like Bentham could will their corpse to physicians for study. The act helped end grave robbery and greatly advance the understanding of human anatomy, but was not without controversy of its own. Some, particularly Bentham's friend Dr. Smith, felt the this Act unfairly targeted the corpses of the poor and homeless. Said Smith: "How is it to be expected "that the uninstructed and ignorant "will sacrifice their own feelings for the public good, "when the best regulated shrink from the obligation?" By donating his body for dissection, Bentham hoped to set an example for the elite and educated, that everyone should voluntarily donate their body to science for the common good. Of course this was easier for Bentham because he was also an atheist who thought any sort of traditional or Christian burial was a waste, and pointless. But back to Bentham's head. During Bentham's dissection, his skin was stripped from his bones and his soft parts were placed inside labeled glass jars, like wine decanters. His skeleton was then articulated with copper wire, so that he could be moved and arranged like old, white man Gumby, (dinging) and dressed in one of his black suits. The suit was stuffed with cotton, straw, and hay, and his abdominal cavity contained moth repellents, naphthalene and lavender. But the piece de resistance (kisses fingers) was Jeremy Bentham's head. Well, it was supposed to be. (short buzzing) ♫ Bensom's Head - As outlined in his will, Bentham intended for his head to be mummified as a Mokomokai, as practiced by the Maoris of New Zealand. The way the Maoris did it was to remove the corpse's brain and eyes, boil the head, then smoke it over a fire and dry it in the sun. The desiccated head would be treated with shark oil and kept in a box by the family. Later, during times of war, the Mokomokai were exchanged for items during peace negotiations. But Bentham's head wasn't quite transformed into the triumphant Mokomokai he'd envisioned. Placing bright blue glass eyes in Bentham's head, the very glass eyes Bentham had carried around on his person for six months before he died, just in case, Dr. Smith suspended the head over sulfuric acid under glass, and used a vacuum to remove the moisture from the head. The results were, not good! Rendered discolored, leathery, sunken, and craggy, Bentham's head, with its spooky blue eyes gazing out at you has been described as ghastly. Unwilling to put the horrific head on Bentham's body, Smith had a wax recreation made and placed atop the skeleton. Bentham's actual head was displayed between the auto-icon's feet until some time between the 1970s and 1990s, nobody's actually sure, when repeated pranks involving the stealing of the head reportedly caused University College London to place the head in a box under lock and key. Nowadays visitors to Bentham's body are really only seeing his wired bones in Bentham's stuffed clothes, and the wax head that Smith commissioned. But you're in luck deathlings! Bentham's real head is currently on display until March 1, 2018 as part of UCL's What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL exhibition. And of course, UCL has more than one preserved head! Didn't your alma mater? The other one belongs to Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie. In addition to being on display, the DNA in Bentham's head is being tested for evidence that he had Asperger's or some form of autism, using techniques for examining Ancient DNA being developed by the Natural History Museum. 185 years after his death, Jeremy Bentham's remains continue to fascinate and yes, bring happiness, to a great number of people. While his auto-icon didn't quite turn out as planned, it's that added layer of a morbid mishap that makes Jeremy Bentham an iconic corpse. Iconic corps! Don't lose your head. This video was made with generous donations from death enthusiasts just like you. (jazzy music) English, my mains! ♫ Bensom's Head